Language, War, and the Bay of Bengal

I love language. I love communication. I love writing and talking. I enjoy words, their meanings, their roots, and how they fit into our lives and how we get our messages across to each other. When I first embarked on my anthropology degree, I wanted to be a Linguistic Anthropologist. Unfortunately, the university I went to didn’t offer that so I chose Cultural Anthropology and loved it. Language and culture go hand in hand and the more I got into my studies the more I enjoyed it. But in the long run, it didn’t matter since I quit school two semesters shy of my degree. But that’s a story for another time.

I think I’ve been to fifteen different countries. Some as a military dependent, some as a Soldier, and one or two just because. I have always liked learning about other cultures and I try to pick up a few words of their language when I’m there. Usually, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Please,” and phrases like that. I think India was the most interesting place I have ever been. The different cultures I encountered within that country drew me in and the amazing and colorful people there fascinated me. The languages they spoke were different from anything I had heard. Yes, languages. The statistic I found states that India has 29 individual languages that are each spoken by at least one million people. There are many others languages that weren’t listed because the site said not as many people speak them. As many as 100 languages are spoken in India daily.

Our interpreter spoke four languages which helped us greatly in our travels. However, we did end up visiting a village on a beach on the Bay of Bengal that had been devastated by the Tsunami of 2004 and our interpreter didn’t speak their local language. We interacted with the people there, but we could not fully communicate. We had no idea what the locals were telling us but it was no doubt how their village was forever changed by devastating waves. In a later event, the interpreter was keeping up brilliantly in translating a sermon given by the leader of our group. Right up until he said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The interpreter looked right at the speaker and said, “Beg your pardon?” That phrase had no adequate translation to Telugu, the language of the people we were speaking to. This intelligent, very well-educated translator could not convey the simple phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” He knew the words and what each word meant. But they had no meaning grouped together in that order in the translated language.

While deployed to Afghanistan, one of my favorite places I got to visit was the ISAF Headquarters base (International Security Assistance Forces). It was very close to the base where I was stationed at in Kabul. It was also connected to the U.S Embassy which was very cool to visit. I probably went on ten missions to ISAF. Most of the countries that were participating in the war effort had troops at ISAF Headquarters. I really enjoyed interacting with coalition and NATO forces. All of us from different cultures speaking a different a tongue, but on a common mission. I’m proud of the Bronze Star I received while there, but I think my favorite ribbon on my uniform is the NATO ribbon. It shows that I was part of something bigger than all of us, even if we couldn’t always understand each other.

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And of course, with that many troops from that many different countries there were some language and communication issues. Most notably, and to be honest the most entertaining to me, was a conversation I watched between two Service Members from different countries (one was Italian and I can’t remember the other). Both men spoke some English, enough to be able to talk to me for the most part. But their broken English was not good enough to talk to each other and it was the only language they had in common. They were actually arguing about something in broken English, not getting anywhere with each other. I was no help because I couldn’t figure out what their disagreement was. But it was amusing to me. Sorry, I find things funny sometimes that aren’t always funny to others.

Speaking the same language does not always mean two people can understand or effectively communicate with each other. Sure, one might know the words that are being spoken, but he might not understand the meaning of what is being said. That’s a hard concept to grasp. Even as I write this, I’m trying to figure out what I’m saying, trying to say it in a way that is logical to you.  It should makes some sense, then, that people get upset when arguing. A person understands the definition of each word being said, but he can’t grasp the concept behind all the words together, in the order they come, or the meaning portrayed by the speaker. Perhaps the speaker should say them louder and be more animated, maybe that will help. And, that’s how the fight starts. I think I do that sometimes when trying to describe my PTSD to people who cannot comprehend or begin to understand. It’s frustrating. I know it’s not from lack of trying. But people who have never experienced what’s going on in my mind, can’t fully understand what I say when I talk about it. Much like the two Service Members from different countries trying to figure out their problem. And no different than the locals on the beach in India that we could not understand at all.

But I still love language. I love putting all the words together and giving them meaning and feeling. Whether you understand me or not has no bearing on what I write. I’m doing this for my own good, for my own therapy. I do hope you enjoy it and get something out of it. I always appreciate feedback, good or bad. Mostly, I hope you have a better understanding of what many of us struggle with daily. We are doing our best to communicate, but it’s hard sometimes, especially when often times we are not understood.

Thanks for reading. Good day, God bless.

Dave

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The Storm

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The road ahead seemed to be getting darker, even unstable as the clouds reached down onto the horizon. A brilliant bolt of lightning struck somewhere miles ahead, right in his path. The vivid image was both beautiful and startling. Small drops of rain began to appear on the windshield as the sky became miserable, ready to unleash rage on the earth below. The treetops were swaying heavily in the wind fighting to stay in place. Leaves and pine needles swept swiftly across the road. He was driving right into the giant storm. There was no way around it on that westbound backroad in south Georgia. Things were about to rough for him.

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He noticed a lone pine needle on the radio antennae. It looked as if it were clinging for dear life. The odds were certainly stacked against it with both the speed of the truck and the wind from the oncoming chaos. He spoke out loud to the dangling pine needle, “Hang in there, don’t give up.” It was only another mile or so before the pine needle released itself and flew away into the swelling gusts and increasing rain. He knew that feeling. The feeling of just letting go because it was just too much to hold on anymore. He was also familiar with the saying, “Hang in there, don’t give up.” He had heard it many times from well-meaning friends. But it doesn’t help, it doesn’t change anything. It’s just something people say when they don’t what else to say.

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Off to the south the clouds were still mostly white and peaceful. The storm seemed to be only in his path. He wanted to be on a different road, somewhere that didn’t have a storm looming. But he was stuck right there in it. It was a disheartening feeling to watch the turmoil come at him and not be able to change his path. There was no way to get another road. He would have to stay on this one through the storm. He wanted to know what made him choose a road with such a spectacular and dangerous event to navigate through. He wondered if in fact he chose this road or perhaps the path he was on in life had chosen it for him. Did he have any control of his course at all? Or was he only able to suffer through it and get to the other side of the storm as best he could?

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The rain began to come down in sheets. His hands gripped the steering wheel, his eyes squinted in an attempt to focus. The truck was pushed around by the daunting wind. He corrected his course and let off the accelerator. It crossed his mind that he could let go like the pine needle had done before and finish what he failed at a year ago. Surely people would know it was an accident. He wondered who would see through the façade and convenience that the storm would actually be the cause of his death instead of him letting go. None of that actually mattered because his survival instincts had kicked in and he did not want to die. But he did want to be out of the storm at most any cost. He questioned whether he could handle the intensity of this storm since previous storms almost killed him.

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The rain became so heavy that he was driving 30 miles per hour below the speed limit. He considered stopping, but there was no suitable place to pull off the barren road. He was in between towns, only corn fields and livestock at that point. He could barely see in front of his truck. Then he saw the lights of a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction heading towards him. He wanted to stop and flag them down and ask how long this storm would last. The vehicles slowly passed each other without any communication or acknowledgement. Neither driver would be able to tell the other how much longer the storm would last. They had each been tossed around in the squall too long to remember when or where it started. And neither one could know when the swirling storm would end for the other.

The wind and rain made one last push to make him lose his way and give in to letting go. His knuckles were white from his hands gripping the steering wheel with all his strength as the lightning made its last effort to derail what was left of his confidence in making it through to the other side. He flinched but kept control. Then, almost as quickly as the storm appeared before him, it was now behind him. He made it.

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The rain was gone. The wind had calmed. The trees now stood still. The road no longer seemed as threatening. He took a few deep breaths and began to relax. He could see sunlight between the clouds and the horizon. The storm was ending but the sun would be setting soon. He made it through just in time for the darkness set in. The joy of the storm now behind him faded quickly thinking about what the darkness can bring. This was a repeated cycle in life. Storm, darkness, storm, darkness.  He hoped he had enough strength left in him to survive the darkness as he did the storm. But he was exhausted. He just wanted to rest. But when?  Will he ever truly rest?

David E. George, 2016.

But Wait, There’s More

My life lately feels like one of those cheesy infomercials from the 90’s where a washed up musician would try to peddle a greatest hits compilation of various artist of his era. Or even try to sell his own music because he can’t get a gig anywhere and no one really remembers what his one hit was until they watch the commercial. I can hear the announcer in the background saying, “And the hits just keep on coming.” And at the final sales pitch he says, “But wait, there’s more.” That’s the story of my life, the hits in life just keep on coming. And you guessed it, there’s always more.

Recently my debit card was compromised on the other side of the country. My card had to be turned off and a new one came in the mail. But not soon enough. I had forgotten about that and tried to check out at the grocery store before I got the new one. Oops. Then the electricity was turned off because I didn’t pay the bill on time. It did get turned back on a few hours later as I scrambled to get the air conditioning going again for the comfort of the kids. The VA continues to be a thorn in my side. I do not understand how they can mess up so many things and not even care. They would go out of business if they were a commercial entity. And to top everything off, my wife, who moved out in March, is now moving back in because obviously I can’t take care of the kids like I thought I could. It’s my own fault.

I cannot begin to describe the lowness of this. This feeling of being an utter failure. I am not unfamiliar with failing. I’ve failed pretty good in my life before, many times. But I would get back up, dust myself off, and look for the next great challenge. I was never really afraid of failing, it’s part of life. Shake it off and move on. I do not seem to have that in me anymore. No more seeking challenges, I have an overload of them already. No more getting back up off the mat, I am beat. I feel like I am down for the count, been punched in the face too many times now. Before you read too much into this, no, I am not having ideas of suicide again. I am accepting that I have failed and there’s nothing that will make this one better in the near future.

I don’t have the money for an attorney to start the process of filing for divorce. I guess that’s a good thing since I would not ‘win’ anyway. What judge in his right mind would award me the kids with my track record? PTSD, anxiety, major depression, a failed suicide attempt last year, no job? Seriously, what was I thinking when I thought I could pull this off? I can’t. I give up. She can move back in. I’ll find a place to go somewhere eventually. Then I’ll look like the one that left and be the bad guy, that’s fine. I don’t mind. Eventually, I’ll end up being one of those deadbeat dads that I despise. You know, the jackass that can’t support his kids. I guess I’m there already. Yep, another new low in my life.

I might catch hell for this post. With the estranged wife moving back in to the spare bedroom, this post will likely only make things worse between us. No, I’m not doing this to piss her off. I’m doing this because I have not written much on this topic of my life and I need to. I write, I share it, and I feel better. It’s what I do, that’s my process. I wonder if my deeper depression the last couple months was exacerbated by not writing about being separated when I wanted to. I had chosen not to write too many details about my failing marriage because I don’t want things to become more contentious between the ex and I, because we still have to raise the kids, and it’s just easier if we aren’t arguing. But we argue anyway. So, for my own therapy, I’m going to write what I want, what’s on my mind. And I will feel better for it.

That’s the plan. We’ll see how it works out. My plans haven’t fared well for a while now. I am way overdue for something good to happen. And I know it’s not near as bad as it feels. I know it could be worse. I’m just tired of everything being all uphill. And I think for the first time in my life I’m scared of failing. Not failing like when I’ve lost multiple businesses over the years. Not like failing when I dropped out of college with only two semesters left a couple years ago. Not even the way my mind and body are failing and not being able to do all the things I used to do, military or otherwise. But I’m scared of failing when it really matters.

Thanks for reading this week. Take care, God bless.

Dave

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image from a google search

Suicide Intervention

It was during my first deployment that I had my first real-life introduction to suicide intervention. I was deployed as a Chaplain Assistant with my unit to Camp Bucca, Iraq (08-09). At that time I had only the minimal training in suicide intervention. I did not understand why someone would want to take their own life and, I am ashamed to say, I sometimes wondered if the person was faking it. It was an easy way to get to leave the desert early for people who didn’t want to be there. I had yet to experience a point that low in my life and I just didn’t understand when someone said they wanted to kill themselves.

During that deployment I took control of three weapons of Service Member’s that showed signs of suicidal ideations. Two of them were preventative measures before they went to the chaplain for counseling. But one was considerably more serious than that. It was real. I still thought in the back of my mind this guy was just trying to get out of work. But I knew him, we had become good friends. And I knew he wasn’t ‘right’, that something was going on. He was changing and I didn’t understand why. I took it seriously, but his logic that he would be better off dead escaped me.

I talked him into turning in his weapon to the base arms room for a little while. I walked with him and his commander in silence. He and I had made a deal that he himself would be the one to give up his weapon, that no one would take it from him. It was important to him that he felt in control of relinquishing his assigned firearm. His commander signed some papers and my friend forfeited his gun. My friend walked away without saying a word to me. I spoke to his commander for a few minutes, assuring him that I would keep an eye on him.

The next day my friend had his weapon. I asked him about it. The paperwork had apparently been filled out wrong and since he was the one that turned it in, he was allowed to get the weapon back himself. I asked if he had felt better about life. He said that he did not. I told him to give me his weapon to which he replied, “You’ll have to take it from me.” I took two steps towards him in the office to come face to face with him and placed my hand on his weapon. He did not resist and I took it from him. I escorted him back to the arms room and turned it in properly. That would insure that he could not get his firearm back without his commander’s approval. I went back to my office alone, closed the door, and shed a few tears. The reality of these things that I could not understand were overwhelming.

My friend didn’t speak to me much the rest of the deployment. I felt like I had traded our friendship to possibly save his life. That is a fair trade. I don’t know for sure if he would have gone through with killing himself, but I also knew, even in my limited experience, that it had to be taken seriously. I hated that he felt like I took something from him that he considered important, that helped define him as a warrior, his weapon. And he hated me for it for a while, too, I guess. On a side note, for those of you in the military that think a chaplain assistant has a cushy job, there’s a lot more to it than you think. It can be an emotionally draing job which many people do not see the whole spectrum of what we do.

Since that time I have received specialized training in suicide intervention. I have taken part in more than a few interventions. I have also experienced that darkness first hand in my own mind. I fully understand now what my friend was going through. I may not relate to his particular circumstances, whatever those were at the time, but for the hopeless feelings that comes with wanting to die, I completely relate. I wish I didn’t. But I think it makes me better at helping people when needed.

I understand that each of us respond differently to various situations. What destroys me might be normal to you. I understand that in many cases the ‘reason’ for wanting to die is simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that no matter what I think, suicidal ideations must be treated as a real threat. I understand that there is no quick fix. I hate that part the most. I just want to be better again. But I know I will never be the person I was before I attempted suicide, it will just never happen. Maybe that’s the part I hate the most because I know I sure do miss the old me.

It was at least a year after returning from Iraq that I got a Facebook message from my friend saying thanks for what I did to help him. We still keep in touch from time to time. It turns out that I didn’t have to trade his friendship for taking his weapon. And now I understand why he reacted the way he did. Because I also lived it, and still do. Different circumstances, different setting, and different consequences. But I completely understand the feelings he experienced, during the deployment and the period that followed. I understand about pushing people away or shutting them out, I do it, too. I’m working on that, trying to do better. Or at least I want to do better.

For those that have been following the horrible life-rut I’ve been in lately, I can’t say that it’s getting any better right now. But I can say that I’ve stopped going in reverse with my thoughts and am ready to start moving forward again when it’s time. I had at least four conversations going the other evening on text or messaging when I was feeling pretty crappy about life, a low point. I don’t know if I were in danger of myself, but I do know my thoughts were not good. I don’t know how many of the people I was talking with had real suicide training, but I know the conversations helped. Point is, you don’t have to be a specialist in suicide prevention to help someone that is having those feelings. Just be there. That’s the first and most important step in an intervention.

Thanks for reading this week. I hope you get something from this. Good day, God bless.

Dave

A few pictures from Camp Bucca, Iraq, 2008-2009.